Pesto calabrese (red pesto)

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Do you love roasted red peppers and sun dried tomatoes? Then you absolutely have to check out this recipe for pesto calabrese! Pesto calabrese is a tasty red pesto that is made with roasted red peppers, tomatoes, and almonds. Unlike traditional pesto that is made with basil, pesto calabrese does not contain any basil.

My favorite thing about pesto calabrese is that it is so easy to make! All you have to do is roast the vegetables under the broiler then throw them in a food processor or blender. This is a great recipe for a night when you are feeling a little adventurous but do not want to carve out a bunch of extra work for yourself.

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How is pesto calabrese different from pesto?

As you can see from my photos, pesto calabrese looks quite different from your standard basil pesto. Here are the main differences between pesto calabrese and traditional basil pesto. 

  • Pesto calabrese is made with red peppers and tomatoes rather than basil. This one is no surprise if you have seen a picture of pest calabrese. Pesto calabrese has a bright red color that is very different from the deep green color of basil pesto. 
  • Pesto calabrese uses almonds rather than pine nuts. The almonds contribute to the creamy flavor of pesto calabrese.
  • The ingredients of pesto calabrese are cooked beforehand. Most of the ingredients of pesto calabrese are cooked before they are combined to make the pesto. This stands in stark contrast to traditional basil pesto where raw ingredients are generally used.
  • Pesto calabrese is generally a little spicy. This is not to say that I have never seen basil pesto made with spicy red pepper, but it is much more common for pesto calabrese to have spicy peppers in it. I would even say that spicy peppers are considered one of the core ingredients for pesto calabrese. 
  • Pesto calabrese often has a creamy ricotta base. This stands in contrast to basil pesto which usually contains salty, nutty cheeses like parmesan.

Red peppers, red onions, and garlic for pesto calabrese

How to make light & creamy pesto calabrese

The recipe in this article is designed to make pesto calabrese that is light and creamy. If you follow the recipe as it is written you will end up with a smooth, creamy red pesto. Here are our tips for making pesto that is extra creamy. 

  • Cook your vegetables on the broiler without oil. When vegetables are cooked for a long time the sugars in the vegetables start to caramelize and they develop strong, deep flavors. This is good if you are aiming for a bold flavor but it is not optimal if you are aiming for a light , creamy flavor. When you use the broiler your vegetables cook quickly and maintain a light and fresh flavor. 
  • Go heavy on the ricotta cheese. Ricotta cheese is the main creamy element in pesto calabrese. If you want an extra creamy pesto calabrese you can add in a little extra ricotta cheese.
  • Go light on the salt. Salt amplifies the flavor of the roasted red peppers and sun dried tomatoes in pesto calabrese. If you want to make a creamy pesto calabrese, go light on the salt so that the creaminess of the ricotta cheese can shine through.

I recommend making a creamy pesto calabrese if you are going to use pesto calabrese as the main flavor in your pasta sauce. When I cook with pesto calabrese I usually make a sauce by combining creamy pesto calabrese and olive oil in a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio.
Red peppers, red onions, and garlic for pesto calabrese

How to make bold & flavorful pesto calabrese

The base recipe in this article was created with a light and creamy pesto calabrese in mind. However, we also make bold and spicy pesto calabrese from time to time. Here are all of the modifications you should make if you want to make a bold pesto calabrese.

  • Cook your vegetables in the oven or on the stove top. If you cook your vegetables in the oven or on the stove top with a little extra olive oil they will take longer to cook. This will leave more time for sugars to caramelize and for deep flavors to develop. 
  • Go lighter on the ricotta and heavier on the parmesan. Parmesan has a sharper flavor than creamy ricotta. Adding more parmesan cheese and less ricotta cheese will be the flavor of your pesto calabrese sharp.
  • Go heavier on the salt. Salt enhances the bold flavors of sun-dried tomatoes and roasted red peppers. 
  • Add 2 vine ripened tomatoes. You should add these tomatoes to your vegetable mix from the beginning and cook them with your sun dried tomatoes, onions, and garlic. The added acidity of the tomatoes helps bring a sharper flavor to the pesto calabrese. 

I recommend modifying the base recipe so that you get a stronger flavor if you are going to combine your pesto calabrese with anything other than olive oil to make your sauce. For example, if you want to add cream or alfredo sauce to your pesto calabrese to make an alfredo pesto sauce you should opt for a bold pesto calabrese. This way the flavor of the pesto does not get lost among the other ingredients of the sauce. 

Roasted red peppers, red onions, and garlic for pesto calabrese

What peppers are traditionally used to make pesto calabrese?

What kind of red peppers are used to make pesto alla calabrese? There are usually two different kinds of peppers that are combined to make pesto calabrese. The first is a sweet red pepper such as a red bell pepper. The sweet pepper is roasted and used as the base of the pesto. The second pepper is a spicy pepper. Traditionally, a spicy peperoncino from the Calabria region of Italy is used to add a little extra kick to the pesto. In this recipe I use Italian red pepper flakes because they are easily accessible in American grocery stores.

Pesto calabrese

This flavorful red pesto will make you forget basil pesto ever existed!
Prep Time5 mins
Cook Time10 mins
Total Time15 mins
Course: Sauce
Cuisine: Italian
Diet: Gluten Free, Vegetarian
Keyword: gluten free, vegetarian
Servings: 4 servings of pesto

Ingredients

  • 2 red bell peppers
  • 1/4 large red onion (if the onion is small use 1/2)
  • 2 large garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup sun dried tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup almonds
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper

Instructions

  • Quarter and deseed the red bell peppers, halve the onion, and remove the skin from the cloves of garlic.
  • Broil the onion, garlic, and bell pepper on high for 5 minutes. Peel off any skin that is hanging off of the bell peppers. It is not essential that you remove all of the skin but I like to remove the parts I can easily get at.
  • Add the almonds and parmesan cheese to the food processor and pulse until finely ground. Then add the rest of the ingredients to the food processor and pulse for 2 minutes.

Notes

This pesto is not intended to serve as a pasta sauce by itself because it is a little dry. To make an easy red pesto pasta sauce you should combine some pesto and olive oil in a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio (depending on your taste preferences). I recommend starting with a 2:1 ratio of pesto to olive oil then slowly adding olive oil to taste. 
The reason we did not add the additional olive oil to the base recipe for this pesto calabrese is so that you have the option to combine this pesto with cream, alfredo sauce, or any other kind of sauce you have lying around. 

Tools & ingredients for pesto calabrese

Here are some of the tools and ingredients we personally use when we make pesto calabrese. We included a link to the food processor that we use whenever we make any kind of pesto. Poke around on the blog for some picture of it in action!




Additions for pesto calabrese

People sometimes add eggplant to pesto calabrese. I would say that the base recipe is flavorful enough that it does not necessarily need the eggplant, but if you have some spare eggplant lying around you might as well try it. Eggplant is added to the pesto calabrese. When I make pesto calabrese with eggplant I usually use about half of an italian eggplant. I simply slice the eggplant up into 1 inch chunks and cook it along with the rest of my vegetables. 

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